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How mindfulness-based therapies can improve attention and health

There's a thought-provoking feature story in the latest issue of Scientific American about the growing body of scientific evidence showing that mindfulness training lowers psychological stress and boosts both mental and physical health.

In the piece (subscription required), University of Miami psychologist Amishi Jha, PhD, systematically outlines the history of mindfulness research from the late 1970s when Jon Kabat-Zinn, PhD, began teaching the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction program at the University of Massachusetts Medical School to present day. In the past three decades, have shown that mindfulness-based therapies can be useful in treating anxiety disorders, preventing recurrence of depression and easing chronic pain.

Jah writes in the piece that she and colleagues recently completed a study involving U.S. Marines that suggested mindfulness training can both sharpen focus and improve mood:

... [W]orking memory capacity shrinks under stress, which marines experience as they prepare for military deployment. Indeed, we found that marines who did not receive mindfulness training had lower working memory capacity, more itinerant minds and worse mood at the end of the eight weeks than they did when the study began. Marines who engaged in mindfulness exercises for 12 minutes or more every day, however, kept their working memory capacity, focus and mood stable over the eight weeks. The more an individual practiced, the better he or she fared, with those who practiced the most showing improvements in memory and mood by the end of the study. These results are in line with other findings that suggest that better control of attention is the most effective way to regulate mood.

Several groups of researchers have found that these improvements in performance correspond to tractable changes in brain structure and function. In the brain, a network of regions, including certain sections of the prefrontal and parietal cortex (at the front and top surface of the brain), support voluntary or top-down selective attention. Meanwhile other parts of the prefrontal and parietal cortex, together with the insula, form a network that monitors what is happening in a bottom-up fashion. In 2012 neuroscientist Eileen Luders and her colleagues at the University of California, Los Angeles, reported that certain parts of this bottom-up network—prominently the insula—are more intricately and tightly folded in people who have engaged in mindfulness training for an average of 20 years compared with otherwise similar untrained individuals. The additional folds are very likely to indicate more efficient communication among neurons in these regions, which may underpin better bottom-up attention.

The full article is worth a read.

Previously: Stanford scientists examine meditation and compassion in the brain, Study shows mindfulness may reduce cancer patients’ anxiety and depression and Rep. Tim Ryan visits Stanford to discuss how the U.S. can benefit from meditation-based practices
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